The Philippine military says it will intensify its campaign against terrorist groups in the country’s southern region where more than 1,500 militants were killed in 2017, including fighters inspired by the Islamic State (IS) during a five-month battle in Marawi city.
Counted in the toll were 128 Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members killed last year, while another 144 surrendered to the government and 80 more were captured, regional army commander Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. said Friday.
Another 920 militants were killed in the battle by Philippine government forces to retake Marawi from IS-backed gunman who seized the southern city on May 23.
“With our intensified combat and law enforcement support operations, hundreds of weapons were recovered and seized as well,” Galvez said, adding this year troops “were under instructions to increase efforts to defeat more enemy combatants.”
ASG commander Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of the IS faction in the region, and several militants from Southeast Asia and the Middle East were killed in the battle, which ended with the government retaking control of the city on Oct. 23. Founded in the 1990s, ASG has been blamed for the worst terrorist bombings in the country, as well as for kidnapping and beheading foreign and local hostages.
The military in the southern region also reported killing 182 Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and capturing 24 while 37 surrendered.
BIFF is a breakaway of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), formerly the country’s largest rebel force until it signed a peace deal with government in 2014. The group, which claims hundreds of fighters, split from the 10,000-member MILF in 2008 and vowed to continue with the separatist fight by attracting younger, more hardline fighters.
Since signing the peace deal, the MILF has helped the military rout BIFF positions in central Mindanao.
“Significantly, the joint security operation and strategic alliance with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front contributed to the success in the operations,” Galvez said. “With the continuing campaign, we are sad to report that 26 of our soldiers were killed in action while fighting the Abu Sayyaf, and seven in the operations against the BIFF.”
Meanwhile, the military said it had cleared 30 percent of Marawi city’s main battle area of unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive devises while rehabilitation efforts continue.
As of the end of the year, 2,853 unexploded ordnance and 415 improvised explosive devices had been recovered and defused, army chief engineer Maj. Gen. Arnold Rafael Depakakibo said.
He said more than 500 military engineers had been deployed to help in the recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation in Marawi.
“We continue our limited construction support to government agencies involved in the maintenance of evacuation centers,” Depakakibo said.
The fighting in Marawi began after troops and police moved to arrest Hapilon. A large force of rebel fighters, including a faction that came to be known as the Maute group, and which was backed by foreign fighters, pushed back.
The military has acknowledged that the rebels’ mastery of urban warfare helped them in the campaign, which saw some of the fiercest battles in modern warfare by Filipino forces.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared the city liberated from the militants on Oct. 23, days after Hapilon and other key militant leaders were killed.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.